The wheel comes a full circle – this was my first thought when I read the manifesto of the BJP for the 2014 elections. My mind goes back to the election of 1984, which was the first national election that the BJP fought on its new symbol, the Lotus. When the Janata Party split up in the aftermath of the fall of Chaudhary Charan Singh’s government, what emerged as the BJP was the combination of most of the Jan Sangh (whose main preoccupation was all about protection of the interests of the Indics – I won’t say Hindus, because Jan Sangh fought as much for the rights of the Sikhs, the Buddhists, and Jains as the Hindus) and much of the Swatantra Party1 (which was all about right wing economics, governance, individual rights, etc). I remember that my parents were delighted – they were often in a quandary about whether to vote the Jan Sangh (with which they identified strongly, being conservatives) or the Swatantra Party (whose right wing economics they advocated). The combination of the two parties into the Bharatiya Janata Party should have solved the dilemma of the conservative voters – they could now vote wholeheartedly for the BJP. In the early 80s, the BJP attempted to fight elections exactly on the plank they are doing now – a combination of Indic interests, good governance and developmental economics. In short, it was the amalgamation of the Jan Sangh and the Swatantra Party manifestos. However, owing to the fact that the 84 elections centred around a very emotive issue (84 was all about sympathy for Indira Gandhi’s death), their experiment failed. Then it was centred around some capable administrators like Vajpayee, Sikander Bakht, Shekhawat, etc (and believe me, this bunch was at least as capable as Narendra Modi). The BJP campaign completely failed, in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s death, Rajiv Gandhi got a historic mandate to implement his agenda, with 48.1% of the national vote (in contrast, the BJP got merely 7.4% of the vote). The agenda on which the BJP had fought the election went into the dustbin of history, and lay there, mostly forgotten.
However, by the late 80s and the early 90s, the Hindutva parts (in short, the Jan Sangh manifesto) had more or less completely dominated the governance part (Swatantra Party manifesto). People only saw the BJP as the `Indic party’ and those who voted for the BJP voted for their Hindutva agenda. The BJP was clear on what they wanted to do, no matter how difficult. Their economic agenda, on the other hand, was less clear. How would they support the liberalisation process that was in progress at that point? What would they do to support Indian trade and manufacturing? All these were vital questions, and the BJP had some answers, but their focus was rarely on the economic agenda. The Hindutva agenda, along with the security angle, was what the BJP was seeking votes on. In one sense, given what India was going through in the late 80s and early 90s (Shah Bano, Babri Masjid mess started by the Congress, Mandal, exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits, etc), it was needed. But, nevertheless, BJP’s Ram temple agenda received more attention than their economic policies, and people voted because they emotionally identified with the Hindutva. Based just on the Hindutva agenda, the BJP’s vote rose from 7.4% in 1984 to 20.1% in 1991, and 20.3% of the vote in 1996. The BJP grew prominently in Karnataka, Jharkhand, Bihar, Maharashtra and parts of Assam in particular, securing a foothold in regions where their influence was very limited. They also greatly steadied themselves in regions like Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh, where they were already influential. Parts of the elites of these regions were won over by the BJP’s overt Hindutva pitch. This represented the first phase of the BJP’s growth. In a sense, this could be thought of as the easily accessible Jan Sangh vote across the country, for the most part. For the time being, the Jan Sangh vote had been maximised.
However, there were several regions where the BJP’s Hindutva agenda had failed to garner a good response. The eastern seaboard from Bengal in the north, to Tamil Nadu in the south, along with Kerala, was impervious to the BJP agenda of Hindutva. Many explanations have been proferred for the BJP’s failure in these regions, but the principal one is that the these regions had their own regionalism as the dominant theme, and Hindutva consciousness had not penetrated into these regions. BJP vote was significant, but small in these regions. The elites of the region were still with the Congress or the regional parties.
From the BJP point of view, Hindutva seemed to have peaked, and the results it could yield seemed to have been maximised, at least for the time being. In several states, BJP scarcely existed, and the BJP could possibly make a dent in these regions with the Hindutva agenda, but it would take a long duration of party building. Whether Hindutva would continue to yield benefits for such a long time, if they were tantalisingly close, but could not come to power, was an open question. Consequently, the BJP made a decision that in hindsight seems short sighted, and misguided. They decided to go into partnership with several anti-Congress regional parties, jettisoning their contentious Hindutva agenda. This had immediate rewards. While the BJP sold a theme that they were still keen on Hindutva to their supporters, they made a deal to remove parts of it objectionable to their allies, and on the strength of it, came to power in 1998 and 1999. Based on the fact that they had come close to power, and many allies were willing to share power with them if they abandoned the Hindutva agenda, the strategy had many immediate rewards. The BJP vote share rose to 25% in 1998, and 24% in 1999 (mainly because they had more allies in 1999), and the BJP was able to come to power reasonably comfortably. However, by abandoning their genuine agenda, the BJP also looked to have signed a death warrant for itself. Its supporters had lost faith in it, and they abandoned it in droves in 2004, particularly in their core areas, sending its vote share falling back to 22%, and dropping their tally by 45 seats. The BJP endured an even more humiliating experience – all its allies who had joined it for the sake of the power now abandoned it, since there was no more prospect of the BJP coming to power in the near future, and the BJP had sacrificed what little it had gained in the states where Allies were strong. Only ideological allies like the SAD and the Shiv Sena stuck to the BJP. Consequently, the BJP was not only completely wiped out in its peripheral regions, but also significantly weakened in its core areas (Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, etc). Even more importantly, the whole Delhi based BJP leadership, that had been complicit in jettisoning Hindutva, was tainted by the actions of the Vajpayee government in the eyes of the Hindutva supporters (which had been the BJP’s principal support base). The BJP leaders’ credibility had collapsed, and not only had they destroyed their credibility, the USP of Hindutva itself had come into doubt. This was the status into which the BJP went into polls in 2009, and unsurprisingly, they were routed. The BJP influence appeared to be diminishing.
The collapse of the credibility of BJP leaders on the Hindutva agenda had affected the Delhi based leaders, but had not, however, advanced to the BJP leadership in the states. One man, in particular, who retained the affection and respect of the BJP cadre, was Narendra Modi. The target of a witch hunt by the secular-liberal intelligentsia in India and abroad, he had come through his ordeal, not only unbowed, but also considerably stronger. And with a single minded focus on development, and a strong focus on his own personal Hindu credentials, Narendra Modi has captured the hearts of not only the Hindutva afficionados, but also the ones who prioritise development. And this is the secret behind the second phase of the BJP growth.
To be fair, Narendra Modi has been greatly aided by circumstance. The policy and governance paralysis, and humongous corruption exhibited by the Congress has destroyed the clean governance image of the PM, Dr. Manmohan Singh. With the economy faltering, corruption and inflation rising, Narendra Modi, the man who has been shown to be incorruptible and a strong and capable policy maker, has captured the governance vote in the country. And many regionalisms have run their course, are tainted by corruption, and are thus uninspiring, allowing the BJP to sprout in regions where it was weak, but where there is a ready constituency for good governance. Consequently, the BJP is today rapidly rising in the states where it was weak. The earlier skew in focus in favour of Hindutva has been modified under Narendra Modi, and today the BJP manifesto represents the balance that it had in 1984, when it focussed on both Indic interests and governance.
Today, what has happened is that both the Hindutva and the governance parts have been united in the person of NaMo in a sensible whole. He is showing the way forward, and has been able to balance both the Hindu interests and the governance+business interests. This is a great thing in that the man, as long as he is around, will probably be able to unite the two parts within himself. Consequently, Narendra Modi is not only getting the Hindutva people to volunteer and help with his campaign, he has also been able to take the Swatantra Party type people with him. This is the secret behind the lotus blossoming in the south. While much of the south has never been hot about Hindutva, it is always very interested in good governance. While many south Indians are devout Hindus in personal life, few are enamoured about wearing their religious identity on their sleeve. Centred around business interests, who will also help Hindutva within limits (many minorities are not inimical to Hindu interests), the BJP can become the true right wing party in Indian politics, and what is happening is what I had always hoped would happen – the amalgamation of the Swatantra party and the Jan Sangh parts into one unified coherent force. This represents the second phase of the BJP’s growth, and the cumulative BJP vote is expected to to be around 30% of the national vote in this election.
Now it is for Narendra Modi to give further direction to this unified group, that has genuine reverence for him, and also fashion the party into an economically sound, culturally strong force, that can take with it all nationalists. But what the BJP needs (and what has already begun happening to an extent via people like Shivraj Chauhan, Raman Singh, Manohar Parrikar, and Gen. Bhuvan Chandra Khanduri, etc) is the generation of a whole horde of people, particularly in the various states, in whom the two sides, governance, and cultural nationalism, can be united and balanced. He should focus on building a team of competent people, particularly for CMs and ministers of states (this is the pool from which further talent for the Centre will be drawn). The PM should be the first among equals, with an extremely capable team around him.
I wish Narendra Modi all the best.
1The Swatantra Party, after the death of Chakravarti Rajagopalachari in 1972, went through several iterations, but the people who joined the BJP from the Janata Parivar were mostly Swatantra Party people, particularly in northern and western India. In south India, though, many prominent Swatantra Party faces like N G Ranga ended up in strange places.